Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The elephant in the classroom

OK, there's another controversy in the ranks of professional philosophy, but it's about a subject I have no expertise in. Rebecca Tuvel, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College published an essay in Hypatia, which, although they merely claim to be a journal of feminist philosophy, is really the journal of feminist philosophy. Her essay, which went through the usual peer review process, is entitled "In Defense of Transracialism". I read it, although, as I said, I have no expertise here. Roughly she argues that transracialism (the idea that someone can appropriately identify as a member of a different ethnicity than her ancestry indicates) is defensible for approximately the same reasons that transgenderism (the idea that someone can appropriately identify as a member of a different gender than her genetic makeup indicates) is. Moreover, any objections one might raise to transracialism would apply mutatis mutandis to transgenderism. Tuvel is clearly an advocate for transgenderism -- which apparently is not the correct term anymore, but I'm unable to find the right one, so apologies to anyone offended by my use of it -- and so is presenting these claims from a sympathetic position.

Out came the knives. A group of feminist philosophers wrote an open letter to Hypatia demanding they retract Tuvel's essay and apologize for it, which Hypatia promptly did. However, others have been deeply offended at this, as it amounts to a demonization of a junior scholar by the higher-ups. Think of it from her position: judging from her entry at philpapers, this is only the third essay Tuvel has published (as well as two book reviews), but the second published in Hypatia. She received her copy of the journal and probably thrilled to see her name in print. Then she was singled out by just that group of academics she was hoping this essay would appeal to, and had her hard work disparaged as not academically serious and immoral. I mean, how devastating would that be? (Having said that, I'm even more junior than her as I'm just a lowly adjunct. Nevertheless, I've published significantly more than her in about the same period of time.) You can read accounts of the story at Daily Nous and New York Magazine, both of which are pretty critical of the letter writers and Hypatia.

However, it seems to me that everyone, or at least the intelligentsia, is ignoring the elephant in the room. Tuvel essentially presented a modus ponens argument:

If transgenderism is appropriate, then transracialism is appropriate.
Transgenderism is appropriate.
Therefore, transracialism is appropriate.

Tuvel's primary focus is on demonstrating the first premise. The second premise she takes as given. But this leaves it open to a point that G.E. Moore made. Moore didn't like skeptical arguments like that he might just be a brain in a vat being stimulated to think he was a philosopher at Cambridge. The idea here is that, since my experiences would be the same whether they were really happening or whether I was a brain in a vat, then I don't know for certain that I'm not a brain in a vat, since there's no test I can perform to adjudicate between these two possibilities. Any test I could think up would be just as explicable under the brain-in-vat theory. But if that's the case, then I can't know the most elementary things about my body, like that the hand I'm holding up in front of my face is really there and is really my hand. The argument was essentially:

If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, then I don't know that this is my hand.
I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat.
Therefore, I don't know that this is my hand.

This, like Tuvel's argument, is in modus ponens form. But then Moore argued that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. Once the first premise is granted, we can just as easily argue:

If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, then I don't know that this is my hand.
I do know that this is my hand.
Therefore, I do know that I'm not a brain in a vat.

So you see where I'm going with this. Once Tuvel has demonstrated the first premise, one could just as easily argue the modus tollens to her modus ponens:

If transgenderism is appropriate, then transracialism is appropriate.
Transracialism is not appropriate.
Therefore, transgenderism is not appropriate.

And that, I believe, is what her critics are freaking out about. While Tuvel was trying to present a modus ponens argument, it can just as easily be turned around into a modus tollens argument. And that's a problem because most of the people who accept transgenderism do not accept transracialism. More that that, transracialism is seen as absurd by hoi polloi. By claiming that the arguments against it apply just as well to transgenderism, Tuvel has essentially given away the store. She has given the great unwashed a reason to reject the propriety of transgenderism, she has revealed that the emperor has no clothes. The vast majority of people just don't accept that you can choose to become another race by virtue of how you feel. But then consistency would require them to say the same thing about gender.

So there are three possible responses to this. 1) Bite the bullet and accept both transracialism and transgenderism, which is what Tuvel was trying to recommend. 2) Reject both transracialism and transgenderism, which is probably what most people would do, or at least most people outside of academia. 3) Reject Tuvel's case that the two stand or fall together. The problem with this is that by arguing for the first premise, Tuvel has placed the burden of proof on her interlocutors. They must explain why the arguments against transracialism don't apply to transgenderism, and why the reasons for accepting transgenderism don't apply to transracialism. Please note that I'm not indicating which conclusion I tend towards, I'm just analyzing what I take the issue to be.

1 comment:

TWW said...

You can argue transgenderism is appropriate, or not. What you can't argue is that Trans genderism is appropriate but Trans racism is not. Or vice versa.